I like to think of myself as organized, in control – mistress of my universe. But the truth is so far from that ideal that it’s almost laughable. And nothing brings clarity to that truth better than a dinner party.
In the abstract, I love to entertain. I picture the table looking gorgeous and fun – or maybe just fun. I’ve hung streamers from the chandelier, constructed a giant Eiffel Tower from a 3-D puzzle for the centerpiece, even set live goldfish in a crystal bowl as part of a seaside theme. With the table image in mind, I sit down with my recipes and start mixing colors and textures and tastes in what I hope will be both interesting and delicious. I tell my imagination to run wild.
And it does – usually right into a brick wall. It turns out, I’m not really good at gauging how long anything – from setting the table to plating the meal – consumes in the time between the idea and the effort. Invariably, some piece or pieces of the event go by the wayside.
My most recent brick wall took place in advance of a dinner party I auctioned off at a high school reunion. It’s a fun concept, and a really different way to raise money for a charity: I offered to cook dinner for 8 on the giant screened porch at my house. I did the same thing in my New Jersey days, and it was a great success, though that time I served the dinner at the buyer’s house.
What saved me this time was that my best friend from high school came over with her husband to be my sous chefs. As I think about it, almost every friend I have has had to pitch in one way or another once I decide to entertain. In New Jersey, my next door neighbor and I had a standing agreement for the day of any dinner part that whichever one of us was not hosting would show up to be “the help” for the other.
Back in Texas, while my husband was serving drinks to our guests, my friend and her hubby prepared the first course, the idea for which I cleverly copied from a fabulous restaurant called Watermarc, in Laguna Beach. Elegant and simple to prepare, pretty much all it requires is assembly. The cool sweet/salty combination of flavors is a wonderfully fresh way to start a meal, especially as warm weather moves in.
You will have to find a grocery store that will sell you sushi-grade tuna, ready-made seaweed salad, and instant dashi (Japanese fish stock); but these days, such ingredients are not as unusual as they once were.
Raw Tuna Appetizer
(To serve 8)
8-10 ounces raw sushi-grade ahi tuna, cut into 24 1-inch cubes
12 cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
watermelon, seeded and cut into 24 cubes slightly larger than 1 inch
24 long fancy toothpicks, or wooden skewers cut to 4-inch lengths
ponzu sauce [Kitchen Goddess note: Flavor-wise, ponzu sauce is essentially a combination of citrus and soy sauce. You can buy it ready-made in many grocery stores, or make your own (see below).]
For the ponzu:
⅓ cup soy sauce
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
2 Tablespoons orange juice or agave nectar
1 Tablespoon rice vinegar
⅓ cup or more dashi (Japanese fish stock, available in powder form. Just add water.)
Mix soy sauce, lemon juice, and vinegar in a bowl. Add dashi according to taste. Makes about 1 cup.
Assembling the dish:
On eight dessert plates or salad plates, make three small mounds of seaweed salad. Onto each toothpick or skewer, thread first a tomato half, then a sushi cube, then a watermelon cube, and stand the skewered food in a tower on top of the seaweed salad. Sprinkle with ponzu and serve. You can make these an hour ahead of time, but be sure to refrigerate them until time to serve, and save the ponzu until just before serving. If you like, you can serve a small pitcher of ponzu to the table for anyone who wants extra.
Nothing makes me crazier than spending a lot of money on cut flowers that will be dead in two days. So I am always on the lookout for alternatives for table-setting. For the dinner party on my porch, I bought a bunch of tiny, adorable succulent plants from my local nursery, and planted some in clear votive candle holders, others in a three-part, rectangular glass dish for nuts or candies that I got from Crate & Barrel. Add a couple more votive holders with candles, and violá!